Australian Open eyes return to glory days in new golf environment

BALLARAT, Australia, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A partnership with the U.S.-based PGA Tour or even the fledgling Saudi-backed Super Golf League are among possible options as Australian golf seeks to return the country's flagship championship to shades of its old glory.

Golf Australia chief executive James Sutherland says several possibilities are on the table for the Australian Open, cancelled the past two years due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

The event is finally back on the schedule, to be held at the Victoria course in Melbourne's famed Sandbelt late in 2022.

Sutherland, who spoke to Reuters about the latest figures that show a 21% increase in the overall number of Australians playing golf, said there were pros and cons to teaming up with a foreign tour for a co-sanctioned event.

"We certainly have significant aspirations for the Australian Open to continue to step up as an event," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"If co-sanctioning with one of the international tours is something that is conducive to that, then we're really open to that and will certainly entertain that.

"Sure, we'd like to see the best possible high-profile players coming but if at the same time that adds a significant layer of cost it can be counterproductive to the broader strategy, which is all about growing golf and seeing more Australians playing golf."

Sutherland said he had not spoken recently with Greg Norman, the public face of the Saudi-backed Super Golf League that, if it comes to fruition, could potentially transform the global game.

"I think we all need to be open to all of the opportunities that might present from time to time," he said when asked about whether Golf Australia would consider partnering with the WGL.

"Big picture, we want to talk to anyone but anything we do needs to fit into our strategy. For us it's about making sure it works for Australian golf as a whole."

The Australian Open was won seven times by Gary Player and six by Jack Nicklaus during its halcyon days of the 1960s and 1970s.

But the field quality has declined in recent decades as prize money has failed to keep pace with escalating purses in the United States.

The Women's Australian Open, conversely, has gone in the other direction, boasting a world class field since becoming a co-sanctioned event with the U.S.-based LPGA Tour since 2012.

It too has been cancelled the past two summers, but Sutherland said he hoped to get next summer's championship back as a co-sanctioned event, though it was not a done deal.

There have also been rumours of the men's and women's Opens being held simultaneously on the same course, with different tees, a format that has worked successfully at the Vic Open, though Sutherland did not comment directly on this.

More generally, Sutherland wants more professional tournaments for women, and to boost participation numbers at all levels by among other things dispelling the widespread perception that the sport is too stuffy.

While the number of male golfers was up sharply in the 2019-20 financial year, women's participation was roughly flat, with barely 2% of the female population (aged over 15) picking up a club.

"There's no short-term fix but right from the bottom up we need to attract more girls into the game," Sutherland said.

"It's not that young people, women and girls don't like golf. We just haven't made the game as attractive to them as we could have and should have."

Reporting by Andrew Both in Ballarat, Australia Editing by Toby Davis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.